The Pernicious Sins of Calumny and Detraction


“Instead of sharing the news you heard about someone, why not stop and pray for them instead?”


In this age of the internet, it is shocking how easy it is to sin against the eighth commandment. Even good-intentioned people seem to think nothing of retweeting or reposting without stopping to think, “Is this true? Is this beneficial? Is this necessary?” 

We are quick to share people’s faults and tell our neighbor the latest gossip. At times, this is cloaked in the thought that we’re simply sharing the latest news, with no thought to how we might be harming someone’s reputation. Or perhaps we tell someone to pray for someone, and then air all the dirty laundry as an explanation of why. 

One of the darkest places on the internet is the comment boxes and responses on social media. People accuse, point fingers, ridicule, and name-call. We rush to judge people based on a few words, a single tweet, or an isolated action. Complete strangers judge intentions and hearts.

We retweet and repost things without any regard for the reputations and lives we may be ruining. This is dangerous for people with large social media followings. A single click can ruin a reputation. If an article is later found false or incomplete, how often does the issued correction go as viral as the original post? Almost never. In addition, numerous studies have shown that people often do not change their mind after making a judgment, even after they are presented with facts to the contrary. 

If we steal someone’s wallet, we can pay them back. But once someone’s reputation is damaged, how do we make restitution? That is why the saints compare the sins of calumny and detraction to murder:

“There is life, but there is also death in the tongue. Sometimes we kill with the tongue: we commit real murders.” St. Faustina Kowalska

“The sin of detraction is the impediment to the very source of piety and grace; it is abominable in the sight of God, because the detractor feeds on the blood of the souls which he has murdered with the sword of his tongue.” St. Francis of Assisi

Read the section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the eighth commandment (CCC 2464-2513). The sins of rash judgment, calumny, and detraction are outlined. These sins are particularly pernicious, since they are devastatingly harmful to the Body of Christ but are often committed without a second thought. We are often good at recognizing other grave sins in our lives, particularly the sins of the flesh and those with more visible effects. But what about the casual comment about a coworker? The off-hand remark about a neighbor’s sin? How often we repeat these nuggets of news without stopping to think, “Do I know if it is even true?” 

Also notice that these sins do not just pertain to spreading lies about others. The sin of detraction is when someone “without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (CCC 2477). St. Bonaventure warns, “Beware of ever repeating what you have heard of others, unless it be something very edifying.”

I remember the first time I read what the Catechism had to say about “rash judgment.” Honestly it terrified me, because I saw how short I fall every day. “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty…of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor” (CCC 2477).

It continues, with a powerful quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola: “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way. ‘Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved’” (CCC 2478).

Perhaps I fall into gossip because of pride. It can be nice to see how much better I am than others. Or maybe there’s a sense of pleasure in being the one to spread news. Who doesn’t like to break a news story? Maybe it makes me feel important or valuable to others. Or maybe I simply haven’t stopped to think about why I feel the need to spread information and just do it because that’s what everyone does.

Instead of sharing the news you heard about someone, why not stop and pray for them instead? Chances are, you haven’t heard the whole story. You don’t know the wounds of those people involved. Is it necessary for you to share? Is what you’re about to retweet, repost, or tell your neighbor true? Necessary? Edifying?

Since we don’t know what it’s like to walk with others’ wounds, perhaps we should listen to the wise words of Saint Anthony of Padua: “Use your ears oftener than your tongue. One often repents of having spoken, and scarcely ever of having been silent.”


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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